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Al Capone’s Beer Wars: Book delves into Prohibition-era Chicago gangland violence, revealing rare facts and insights

By David Amoruso

Chicago during Prohibition was a place of extremes. It was a city where men made more money than God as they smuggled booze, set up speakeasies, engaged in labor racketeering, ran prostitution and organized gambling. It was also where many of them died violent deaths at the hands of their rivals as various gangs fought for supremacy. Now, author John J. Binder gives readers a complete account of those turbulent times in his forthcoming book Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition.

Based on over two decades of exhaustive research by renowned mob historian Binder, the book covers the entire period from 1920 to 1933. A major focus is how the gang led by infamous mob boss Al Capone gained a virtual monopoly over organized crime in northern Illinois and beyond even though it was just one of a staggering twelve major bootlegging gangs vying for territory at the start of Prohibition.

Binder will detail these gangs extensively, he writes Gangsters Inc. Interestingly enough, many of these groups are virtually unknown to the public as they have at best barely before been discussed in books to date. These include:

  • The Guilfoyle-Kolb-Winge gang
  • The Schultz-Horan gang
  • The Cook-Vogel gang
  • The O’Donnell-McErlane gang, formed when Frank McErlane left the Saltis-McErlane gang and joined his long-time adversary “Spike” O’Donnell
  • The Downs-McGeoghegan-Quinlan gang
  • The McErlane gang, which was created when the O’Donnell-McErlane gang split into three separate groups

As Binder takes readers deeper into the Chicago gangland of that era, showing them its secrets and unknown players, he also refutes numerous myths, such as:

  • The South Side O’Donnell gang was formed in 1923 when Spike O’Donnell was released from prison
  • An inter-gang squad of killers punished the South Side O’Donnell mob when it invaded Saltis-McErlane territory in the fall of 1923
  • The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre was not a Capone operation
  • The North Side gang only had 7 members, if you count the optometrist and the mechanic, in early 1929
  • The North Side gang broke up right after the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre
  • The Capone gang controlled almost all bootlegging in Chicago before Capone went to prison in 1931
  • Over 700 members of the major bootlegging gangs were killed during the Prohibition Era gang wars in Chicago
  • The Thompson submachine gun was heavily used in these murders
  • The Capone gang did not deal in illegal narcotics
  • Policy gambling was invented in Chicago in the 1890s

While his focus is on Chicago’s criminal element, Binder hasn’t forgotten about the brave members of law enforcement and citizens who stood up to the violent gangsters. He describes the fight by federal and local authorities, as well as citizens' groups, against organized crime.

What emerges is a big – and very detailed - picture of how Chicago's underworld evolved during this period. This broad perspective goes well beyond Capone and specific acts of violence and brings to light what was happening elsewhere in Chicagoland and what happened after Capone went to jail.

Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition by author John J. Binder will be available at stores on June 6, 2017. 

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